Updated date:

The Stone Age Tasaday Tribe Controversy

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

In 1971, the world was startled to learn that a tribe of people in the rainforest of the Philippines was still living in a Stone Age culture.

On July 16, 1971 David Brinkley announced: “The outside world, after maybe a thousand years, has discovered a small tribe of people living in a remote jungle in the Philippines. Until now, the outside world didn’t know they existed … and they didn’t know the outside world existed.”

There were said to be only 26 members of this group still alive and they wore almost no clothing except that which was made out of lotus leaves. That ought to have been a clue.

Filipino Businessman Finds Cavemen

A Filipino businessman, Manuel Elizalde, claimed to have located these people and he appointed himself their protector. But, Robin Hemley, in his 2003 book Invented Eden, describes Elizalde as a man of “dubious background.”

He was a friend of Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos and, through his crooked regime, got into many businesses such as mining, real estate, banking, and farming. He had been a hard-drinking playboy. Marnie O’Neill writes (News.com) that “he was a controversial figure who rarely involved himself in a project from which he could not benefit.”

He was also an amateur anthropologist, so he had some credibility when he announced his discovery of a primitive tribe living in the rainforests of Mindanao. Elizalde was a member of the Marcos cabinet, so he set up a foundation and solicited donations to pay for the protection and welfare of the Tasaday. He called finding the tribe “the most important discovery in anthropology this century.”

But, he seemed an unlikely candidate for The National Geographic description of “a visionary idealist who cared more about the hard-pressed national minorities than about his family fortune.”

Mindanao is in red.

Mindanao is in red.

The Tasaday Way of Life

In 2003, The Guardian summed up the contemporary descriptions of these isolated natives: “These people, the Tasaday, spoke a strange language, gathered wild food, used stone tools, lived in caves … and settled matters by gentle persuasion. They made love, not war, and became icons of innocence; reminders of a vanished Eden.”

The Economist noted that “Their basic food was the wild yam, a root vegetable, flavoured with grubs and small fish, with wild bananas for pudding … They made fire by rubbing sticks together. They ran naked in this Eden or dressed in clothes made of leaves.”

Here, it seemed, was a gentle people uncorrupted by civilization, living in a state of Nature. Were they Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “noble savages” living in the 20th century?

Worldwide Sensation of the Tasaday

When news broke of the discovery a bit of a media frenzy got underway. Archaeologists, anthropologists, journalists, and others swarmed into the Mindanao rainforest in search of these strange people.

As The New York Times noted in an obituary of Elizalde in 1997, the investigations proved fruitful: “Their enthusiastic reports led to a book, The Gentle Tasaday: A Stone Age People in the Philippine Rain Forest, by John Nance; glowing accounts in The National Geographic, and extensive television coverage.”

Jamie James wrote in Time Magazine (May 2003) that, “celebrities such as Charles Lindbergh and Gina Lollobrigida (who was a chum of Imelda Marcos, for whom she wrote the text of a coffee-table book about the Tasaday) choppered in to have a look ...”

So many people wanted to meet the Tasaday that Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos declared the area in which they lived off limits to just about everyone. Could it be that he feared the truth might get out?

The Mindanao rainforest is threatened by logging, much of it illegal.

The Mindanao rainforest is threatened by logging, much of it illegal.

Renewed Access to the Tasaday People

Ferdinand Marcos was tossed out of the country in 1986 and the region where the Tasaday tribe lived was opened up.

Two journalists, Oswald Iten from Sitzerland and Filipino, Joey Lozano, trekked into the rainforest to find the Tasaday. The people they met neither dressed in leaves nor lived in caves; they wore Levis and T-shirts and had houses.

The British online encyclopedia h2g2 adds that, “Further research showed that the Tasaday actually came from two other tribes, tribes that had been part of the modern world for years. They (Iten and Lozano) publicized their findings through an ABC television documentary entitled The Tribe that Never Was.”

According to Benjamin Radford in LiveScience: “Elizalde had convinced local villagers to pretend to live in caves, in return for promises of money and aid.” With an eye to attracting the media he also persuaded them to shed their 20th century clothes and wear leaves instead. Semi-naked primitive people were going to be the front page money shot.

But, little of the promised the aid money showed up. Radford explains that Elizalde “skipped town in the early 1980s with a reported $35 million and a harem of teenage girls. He died at the age of 60 in 1997, ending the saga of another ‘lost tribe.’ ”

As The New York Times put it “some scientists say he was one of the world’s master hoaxers.” Some people suspect that the whole episode was part of a plan for Elizalde to pull off a monumental land grab.

The Tasaday people in 2012 looking very not Stone Age.

The Tasaday people in 2012 looking very not Stone Age.

Bonus Factoids

  • In 1912, an amateur archaeologist named Charles Dawson claimed to have found a human-like skull that was the missing link between humans and apes. The discovery near Piltdown in Sussex, England was a sensation that fooled the scientific community until 1949. A new dating technique established that the Piltdown Man was an elaborate fraud.
  • In October 1869, some labourers were digging a well in Cardiff, New York, south of Syracuse. They hit what they thought was a rock, but, upon digging further, they found a 10 feet tall human figure. Thousands came from far and wide to view the Cardiff Giant for a small fee passed to the farmer on whose land it was discovered. Theologians declared it must be the giants spoken of in Genesis. Alas, only a mischievous hoaxer from New York called George Hull was the creator of the giant, not God.
  • Harold Cook was a farmer and geologist in Nebraska, who found a fossilized tooth on his land. A prominent palaeontologist, Henry Fairfield Osborn, declared the tooth to be hominid in origin. The sensational news was released that a previously unknown ape-like creature had lived in North America millions of years ago. Once more, alas. The tooth turned out to come from a type of pig.

Sources

  • “Manuel Elizalde―Obituary.” The Economist, May 15, 1997.
  • “Invented Eden.” Robin Hemley, Douglas and McIntyre, May 2003.
  • “Too Good to be True.” Tim Radford, The Guardian, November 13, 2003.
  • “Manuel Elizalde, 60, Dies; Defender of Primitive Tribe.” Robert McG. Thomas Jr., New York Times, May 8, 1997.
  • “The Tribe Out of Time.” Jamie James, Time Magazine, May 19, 2003.
  • “The Tasaday Hoax.” H2g2, undated.
  • “A Savage Hoax: The Cave Men Who Never Existed.” Benjamin Radford, Live Science, June 25, 2008.
  • “The Mind-Bending Saga of the Stone Age Tasaday Tribe of the Philippines.” Marnie O’Neill, News.com, December 2, 2018.
  • “America’s Boy: The Marcoses and the Philippines.” James Hamilton-Paterson, Faber & Faber, 2014.

© 2020 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on January 02, 2020:

Kevin. I am equally amazed that a quality journal such as National Geographic could be fooled. I mean, clean shaven Stone Age men; didn't anybody question that?

Kevin Doerksen from Chicago on January 02, 2020:

My family subscribed to National Geographic for decades. I remember when this issue arrive at our door. As an inquisitive 6 year old, I was fascinated by the idea of "stone age" people. I was out of high school when the whole story came crashing down. Amazing that NG got taken in by the whole thing.